Have American theatres lost the knack for high comedy?
The form used to be a staple of the Little Theatre movement and even of high schools, most of which had at least one production of a Kaufman and Hart or George Kelly play per season. Admittedly, there are few native practitioners of the genre today. (Quick! Name one. Okay — Douglas Carter Bean. Anyone else? Neil Simon? Ehhhhhh — not exactly. His comedy is more middle than high.) Farce has been more resilient, but just barely; the current revival of Larry Gelbart's Sly Fox — arguably the funniest American farce since the heyday of Kaufman & Co. — proves his mastery, and Simon can still hit a home run now and again.
Still, the 1930s saw such a plethora of high comedy there isn't a dearth of material. It just takes some creative archeology. So, why are there so few takers? Mostly, I think, because the form is considered old hat. And it is. So is Show Boat — does that make it irrelevant? Well, isn't high comedy generally about the rich? Guilty again. But surely there's room in our theater for literate dialogue, the wit of a well-turned epigram, and humor that reveals human dimensions instead of simply making fun?
The point is, when a cycle of theater slips from public view, actors and directors lose contact with it as well; lacking the requisite understanding of its mechanics, they flail helplessly when confronted by an alien stylistic complexity. (PlayMakers Repertory Company tackled Hay Fever a couple seasons ago, and broke its back. Locally and to my knowledge, only John McIlwee at University Theatre at N.C. State is confidently at home with high comedy.) This is the central problem facing the current Deep Dish Theatre Company production of Philip Barry's Holiday. Neither its director nor his cast has a sense of what makes Barry tick.
Known today primarily for The Philadelphia Story (1939) and, to a lesser degree, this play, Barry is a dramatist so of his time that the bulk of his output cannot transcend it. Holiday turns on what, at its 1928 premiere, was a fairly radical idea: its hero, Johnny Case, hopes to strike it rich now so he can effectively retire — have his holiday — while he's young enough to reap the full benefit, before returning to the workforce. (A nonconformist, Johnny is, in that overworked 1970s phrase, "trying to find himself.")
By the late 1960s, Johnny's notion didn't seem quite so extreme — but Barry's era was long since over. His memory is kept afloat largely through George Cukor's splendid movie adaptations of Holiday (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940), both of which starred Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant — actors who knew how to deliver the goods. The two, absolutely essential, ingredients in playing Barry successfully — pace and a sense of timing — are simply not in evidence at Deep Dish.
The director, Tony Lea, has done good work before and will no doubt do so again (although I must confess that I generally prefer him on the other side of the footlights). But he doesn't seem the man for Barry. His pacing is lugubrious, and the tone is off. It isn't that the play is all lightness and frivolity. But its darker moments — particularly the long nursery scene in Act Two — shouldn't weight the whole thing down. And the dialogue, instead of crackling and, occasionally, drawing blood, is performed in a manner that's downright funereal. It all feels tentative, with no real style at all unless, to judge from the number of pauses with which the speeches are choked, it's Harold Pinter.
With two notable exceptions, the cast succumbs to the ennui pretty thoroughly. The chief culprit is Katja Hill in the crucial role of the frustrated free spirit Linda Seton, the fly in the family ointment. Instead of evincing Linda's agitation at her own privileged state, Hill registers only the character's disgust: she slouches like an adolescent in a funk because she's been grounded — when, that is, she's not posing with one hand above her hip and the other extended with crooked elbow, as if clutching a nonexistent cigarette holder. High comedy does not mean playing with artifice.
As Johnny, John Allore, aside from his constant fidgeting with hair and costume, is barely there at all. As Linda and Johnny's mutual friends Nick and Susan Potter, Kevin Ferguson and Collette Rutherford are game, but their merriment in this largely humorless context feels less spontaneous than forced, making them arch instead of endearingly madcap. David Berberian fares rather better as the tragically bibulous Ned Seton, but the character's plight — his father's authoritarian noblesse oblige has driven him to drink — should be quietly heartbreaking, and never is. As Linda's noxiously tony cousin Seton Cram, Tim Cole is less overweening sophisticate than honking racetrack tout, while Tracey Phillips, as Johnny's erstwhile fiancée Julia, seems like two distinct individuals rather than one person with two, interchangeable, sides.
The play's pater familias, Edward Seton, isn't much of a role — Barry had a problem concocting fulsome figures of masculine authority — but Scotty Cherryholmes convinces you there's more to it than meets the eye (and ear). He modulates the bluster while at the same time giving the character an edge: the barely repressed violence of one who cannot abide the thought of being thwarted at anything. Curiously, the most vivid performer in Holiday is the one playing the most negligible character. Each time the delicious Katie Flaherty enters the scene as Cram's vainglorious social-climbing wife Laura, it's as though a fresh breeze has wafted in with her. Describing Johnny early on, Linda exults, "Life came into this house today!" I felt the same way whenever Flaherty was on.
Rob Hamilton's set for the third-floor drawing room is exquisite, 1920s Colonial Revival decorated with a believable mix of early Victorian and Art Deco — the kind of room that's been lived in over a long period. But his forced-perspective set for the playroom, while cunningly designed for the space, is less fecund as a playing area. Judy Chang's costumes are admirable, except for Julia's brownish shoes in Act I, which clash with her pale green dress.
In fairness, I must disclose that I did not remain for Act III. This is not a thing I take lightly, or enjoy doing. But life is only so long; Holiday had begun to feel longer.
Second Opinion: April 28th Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods: http://indyweek.com/durham/current/woods.html.
Deep Dish Theater Company presents Holiday Thursday-Saturday, April 29-May 1, and May 6-8 and 13-15, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, May 2 and 9, at 3 p.m.; and Wednesday, May 12, at 7:30 p.m. in the space behind Branching Out at the Dillard's end of University Mall, at the intersection of Estes Drive and U.S. 15-501, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. $14 ($10 students and $12 seniors). 919/968-1515. Note 1: Deep Dish's storefront theater is located in the area behind Branching Out, which is located between Cameron's and The Print Shop. Enter through Branching Out. Note 2: There will be a post-play discussion following the show's May 2 performance. Note 3: Dr. Evelyn Daniel, who teaches, researches, and coordinates the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School Library Program and student fieldwork, will lead the Deep Dish Book Club discussion of Flappers and Philosophers (Project Gutenberg E-book: http://www.gutenberg.net/etext/4368), a 1920 collection of short stories by celebrated American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), at 7 p.m. May 13 in Tyndall Galleries in University Mall. Deep Dish Theater Company: http://www.deepdishtheater.org/holiday%20release.html. Internet Broadway Database (1928-29 Broadway Production): http://www.ibdb.com/production.asp?ID=10787. Internet Movie Database (1938 Film): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0030241/.